Brainspotting Part 2 – A Neurobehavioral Treatment for Sports Trauma

From the Editor: Brainspotting is an emerging treatment modality used by a growing collection of mental health practitioners originally designed and developed for treating trauma – including, but not limited to, sports trauma.  Sports like baseball, football, gymnastics, diving, cheer competitions and the like have gained notoriety for some of the problems these athletes have developed after experiencing or even witnessing a traumatic injury. Specifically, Sports Trauma (ST) tends to manifest in a neuromotor dysfunction of a motor skill previously mastered by the athlete.  A gymnast or diver who balks on a skill they have done thousands of times, the golfer who develops an involuntary spasm during the putting stroke (yips).  These are examples of the manifestation of sports trauma…usually experienced in the aftermath of an injury, witnessing an injury, or experiencing a “humiliation” in competition.

This post is the second of a series of three articles Podium Sports Journal will be publishing on Brainspotting.  Athletes and practitioners who have experience with the technique and would care to comment or provide case studies are welcome and invited to contribute.  Stay tuned over the next few weeks as these articles are published.

This piece was adapted from an article by Dr. David Grand which originally appeared in Dr. Frank Wagner’s German Journal: Trauma (published by Gewalt)

Background

Brainspotting (BSP) was developed as a psychotherapeutic approach for treating trauma, especially sports related trauma issues including the “yips,” and other sport performance problems that present like motor skills deficits – but usually involve a much deeper understanding and connection with the nervous system to treat.  Discovered by David Grand Ph.D. in 2003, Brainspotting (BSP) uses the field of vision to locate “relevant eye positions” (or Brainspots) that correlate to neurological stimulation and one’s internal processing experience.

Other popular methods for addressing trauma include EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) This internal processing experience is regarded as similar to that referred to by Dr. Peter Levine as “somatic experiencing.”  Levine is another of the foremost pioneers in the field of treating trauma, especially a PTSD.  Both will tell you that when individual’s have strong emotional ties to an experience, positively or negatively, Brainspots are integrated into the lymbic system and its association with sensory experiences, and, in many cases – neuromotor movement.

Relevant Eye Positions

Brainspotting as a treatment modality, focuses specifically on certain eye positions, which represent the client’s neurological connection to a state of “focused activation.”  This is not hard to do.  Even asking a 50 year old athlete to remember their “peak athletic experience” – they will have no difficulty identifying those ‘glory days’ and the corresponding story about that performance that palpably changes their internal experience.  So powerful is this experience, it can shift someone from boredom to excitement within seconds.  These kinds of somatic experiences are frequently used in BSP to reinforce an athletes positive self-expectation.  In BSP – they are called “Resource Spots” – and they are useful as an important tool in addressing pre-competitive anxiety.

Recently, Podium Sports Journal featured an example of how the resource spot was used in a case study – in developing the Pre-jump routine of a high jumper. There have been many efforts using visualization, NLP “anchoring” processes, and mental rehearsal/choreography techniques – yet nothing in the author’s experience – has been as effective as the “Resource Spot.”  When BSP resource spots are referenced frequently and updated to include specific “process goals or skill sets” an athlete has a more complete method for developing mastery of that skill (cognitively – perceptually – kinesthetically).  Effective use of the resource spot increases the ability to trigger the optimal somatic experience “on demand” using the visual eye position associated with it.

It is also true that there are relevant eye positions which correspond in response to psychotrauma, that may or may not include physical injury, yet emotional or somatic symptoms are almost always experienced.  Processing these through Brainspotting technique offers tremendous flexibility and potency for an athlete working with an experienced practitioner

Dr. Robert Scaer, board certified neurologist and trauma specialist interviewed briefly in Brainspotting Part 1, has authored a book entitled: The Trauma Spectrum: Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency. The second part of his interview delineating the neurophysiological mechanisms  involved in trauma is available on the Conscious Media Network TV, however, registration is required.  Another leader in this field, Dr. Peter Levine offers a potent explanation in how trauma impacts the body’s use of energy as it locks an individual in the “Freeze response” so often discussed in the trauma literature, or the “Yips” as experienced by Mackey Sasser in Part 1.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/16799730[/vimeo]

Measuring the Somatic Experience

David Grand employs a scale which allows the athlete to describe in discrete units – how they experience the activation point for the Brainspot in the visual field.  Grand uses the the SUDs (Subjective Units of Disturbance Scale) level of 0 to 10 (lowest to highest) to sense the athlete’s level of “focused activation.”  He then follows that somatic experience by locating the “relative eye position” associated with the highest level of “activation” as identified by the athlete (Wolpe, 1969).

At present there are six distinct methods for locating relevant eye positions. Once determined, the client is guided to uncritically observe their sequential internal process which includes affect, memory, cognition, noteworthy body sensations, motor movements (blinks, swallows, coughs, twitches), and imagery experiences unique to the client. This self-observation is called “focused mindfulness” as it is parallel to meditation but is performed in a state of focused activation.

At various junctures, determined by either the client or the therapist, a brief discussion ensues reviewing the nature of processing. This is followed by the therapist reorienting the client to their body experience as the unguided self-observation resumes. The process continues until the client arrives at a state of resolution, determined by returning their original issue of activation with no SUDs activation present. This is reinforced by having the client “squeeze the lemon” by attempting to internally reactivate the SUDs level which is again processed down until it can no longer be reactivated. Based on the diagnosis, complexity of the condition and client capacity for processing, resolution may occur in anywhere from one session to many sessions of treatment (Grand, 2009).

The Relative eye positions are tracked on a grid by the therapist – using a template similar to the Cartesian Coordinate System in 3 Dimension – (think X, Y and Z axes).  By charting the perceived sense of focused activation on the x, y and z axes – both the therapist and client have a very clear and immediately recognizable “Brainspot” associated with a resource spot – or – a trauma brainspot.

Discovery of Brainspotting

BSP was discovered by the author in 2003 while working with a 16 year old ice skater. She had been seen for a year of weekly 90 minute sessions to treat significant performance issues that possessed a dissociative quality. For example, in warm-ups before competition, she would either feel like she had forgotten her program or reported that she couldn’t feel her legs. This resulted in performances far below par and an inability to compete at a national level correlating to her level of talent. During the year of treatment the author used his approach called “The Grand System” (Grand, 2001) which included aspects of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) (Shapiro, 2001), SE (Somatic Experiencing) (Levine, 1997), micromovements and relational insight-oriented therapy.

Some factors of the skater’s performance problems were a variety of traumas including maternal rejection, parental discord leading to divorce when the client was six, as well as a long history of sports injuries, failures and humiliations. The treatment had for the most part been successful with a few exceptions, including the inability to complete a triple loop. This jump is not the most difficult for championship caliber skaters such as my client, and her inability to perform it made a successful short and long program impossible. The client was guided to imagine doing the jump in slow motion and freezing it at the precise moment she felt and saw herself “going off”. She then was guided to follow the author’s fingers moving slowly back and forth across her visual field. Within a few passes, just slightly off center, her eyes noticeably wobbled in a sustained microsaccade followed by locking into a frozen position (Martinez-Conde & Macknik, 2007). Startled by this response, the author reflexively stopped moving his fingers and immediately held them directly in front of the eye freeze, about three feet away from the client. During the subsequent ten minutes a remarkable torrent of processing ensued. A series of new traumatic memories emerged and rapidly processed through to resolution. But even more surprising was that a significant number of “resolved” traumas reopened and processed through to a deeper level. At the end of the ten minutes, the processing slowed and completed, and the eye lock released. This was an unusual event indeed but it was reinforced the next morning when the young skater called after practice. She excitedly reported repeatedly performing triple loops without a hitch. She never manifested a problem with the jump again.

This caught the attention of the author and he began to look for similar eye manifestations in other clients while tracking slowly across their visual fields. When he observed them he repeated the procedure of holding his finger dead center in front of where the anomaly occurred. He not only noticed an acceleration and deepening of the processes, but he was again startled by client reports. Comments like, “this is really different’, “this feels much deeper”, “I can feel it all the way in the back of my head”, and “I can really feel it in my body”, emerged from a wide spectrum of clients. Of particular note were the pronouncements of clients who were also therapists indicating that they observed a profoundly different experience and outcome from this new approach.

Additionally, with instructions from the author as far as how to perform the technique, many of these therapists tried it out with their own clients and reported back similar experiences leading to faster and deeper resolutions. So in the course of a month, the author with his own observations and the feedback loop from his therapist clients, determined that he had stumbled onto a new method, and, perhaps a new paradigm for treating trauma.  Sports trauma is a particularly compelling forum for Brainspotting, particularly because athletic performance is charted, measured, and monitored through a huge number of measurable statistics.  In addition, the athlete’s kinesthetic awareness is a key to their performance.  Anything that interferes with an athlete’s “feel” is likely to translate into a performance problem.  Mackay Sasser’s throwing “hitch”, Tom Watson’s, and lately, Tiger Woods putting “yips” are another key example.

From the editor:  In our next installment (Brainspotting Part 3) – various methods for locating the distinct eye positions and additional commentary from those using the technique will be included.  Thanks to David Grand, PhD for providing access and for those engaged in the BSP Training Program who have allowed their images to be used in this installment.

4 thoughts on “Brainspotting Part 2 – A Neurobehavioral Treatment for Sports Trauma

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